A Theory-Slash-Rant on Why YA is Doing SO Well

One of the things agents do, just before sending out a manuscript, and just after asking publishing friends for editor recommendations, is go on Publishers Marketplace and see what's selling in the genre--and who's buying.

So, in perusing what's sold in Young Adult recently, I was so happy, so overwhelmed, and so hopeful. Not just hopeful for books, but for Young Adult books, and for the next generation--as readers and as humans.

First of all, one of the things I love about the genre is that there aren't rules. I hate rules. I was always that kid who'd stand up in class and demand to know why--never satisfied with because I said so.

(Of course there are some guidelines, but they're mostly rules of appropriateness. But we all know that clever euphemisms can convey the same thing just as well. If the kids understand what's behind the subtle language, we figure, well...then they're probably mature enough to read about it in a book where it is--we can only assume--responsibly portrayed.)

Adult fiction means fiction that's subject to adult logic. Since younger readers haven't yet categorized the whole world into "possible" versus "impossible," so much more can happen in these works. It's a great freedom--and means that the works themselves often do more with our imaginations.

In other words: I heart YA. (Yes. "Heart" is a perfectly acceptable verb.)

Publishers Marketplace will probably find and kill me if I list everything that I found on their site, all of the listings of amazingness purchased in YA book form.

That said, here are a few summaries (with identifying details omitted):

  • A young psychic's return to her hometown where her premonitions become increasingly dangerous as she learns the truth about the mother she never knew -- and finds love for the first time.
  • [Author]'s debut novel, [Title], set in a future where the dominant social network, [Network], knows you better than you know yourself, and two teens learn that they're pawns in the sinister [Network] 3.0 upgrade, poised to unite Friends across both space and time.
  • A mature YA novel based on the personalities and careers of Keats, Byron and the Shelleys, transposed into the present as teenagers attending high school in [Town], Ohio
  • A young teen juggling first love, a cake-decorating business, her dad's reality TV show, and a search for her missing mother.
  • A teen girl who, in evading a murderer, discovers that she and her classmates are very dangerous thanks to genetic engineering.
YA has always, in my estimation, been rather high in Vitamin Awesome.

That said, why is this genre suddenly doing so well?

It's easy to give the standard, two-syllable response: Twilight!

Yeah, well, I don't buy it. (And no, I didn't buy the book. It was forced on me by my cousin just before a long bus ride from DC back home. Somewhere around New Jersey, I finished the book and started to feel ill.) Yes, I'm a contrarian; yes, I prefer books with oh, I don't know, good sentences.

I don't think that it's Twilight itself--I think the world was ready for a Twilight-like work--dark YA that captures the imagination. It was a niche waiting to be filled, and nature, as we know, abhors a (blood-sucking) vacuum.

Why was the world so ready?

Well, let's think about this: American education has come to rely on fill-in-the-bubble tests, preparation for fill-in-the-bubble tests, memorization, and questions with answers that are always objectively right or objectively wrong. Teachers are frustrated--they want to teach that which is real--I know this, because I know many. In some parts of the country, a fifth of the year is devoted to #2 pencils and a world limited to A, B, C, or D.

Is it any wonder kids are craving something that exists in the imaginative, creative, impossible, unrealistic, impractical, magical, emotional, nuanced, and so very human world of this kind of fiction?

Imagine receiving the message every weekday that all there is to learn about the world can be categorized into "correct" or "incorrect" by an unseen authority of government-regulated "academia" on high. Why? Because they said so.

Now imagine you've suddenly reached a stage in your life when everything seems a shade of uncategorizable (though not graphite) gray.

What, then, are these works? Downright life-affirming. Proof that there is something beyond the quantifiable. Proof that there is more to being human, an imaginative being, than that which your parents, teachers, principal, tutors, the SAT corporation--say is possible.

And, frankly--the fact that teenagers are making more reading homework for themselves to seek out that which is human?

Gives me plenty of hope for the next generation. Take that, collegeboard.com!

Agent Superstition

I just sent out a novel that I'm terribly excited about.

But do we agents get superstitious in such moments? Of course we do.

"Hi, it's your agent," I say as soon as the writer picks up. "So, your work is out. Now would be the time to light candles, incense, pray"--and I add the last part because it's YA--"cast spells...whatever works, now is the time."

Am knocking on a forest.
SEAK totally spoiled us. In addition to business-class trains, limo service, and tons of free time, my hotel room had this balcony:
I don't know why, but this strikes me as amusing. I only saw a few golfers. But did I want to go out and thoroughly annoy anyone there with my, "YES! I get to hit a ball with a stick really really hard and see where it goes and then drive a golf cart after it! attempts? Yes, yes I did.
Apparently the big companies getting together to decide to charge more for bestsellers is illegal.

Darn.

Looks like we have some lawyers/businesspeople reading the blog. Excellent!

On publicity in the recession

If you haven't read The New Yorker's Shouts & Murmurs piece, you really must.

It's hilarious and, quite unfortunately, not so far from what I've heard from authors recently.

Go Team Gale! Wooot woooooot

For whatever reason, SEAK has an incredibly large number of amusing doctor Texans.

I was at drinks with a group of them the other night, and hunting came up.

Where I grew up, I said, one of my kindergarten friend's dad's had a glass case of guns--something the mothers whispered about as if it were just the most evil thing ever: How could he?! And with kids in the house, too! They also lectured us about how we should know where our food came from. I'm still not entirely sure how the two line up.

We got to talking about a number of things--that humans are 3,000 years "out of the bush"--and simply can't evolve that fast; that most of us no longer think ourselves animals, and that we're so disconnected from where our food comes from. Give a kid a plastic-wrapped piece of pre-cleaned meat and--really? You expect them to make that imaginative leap?

Then I brought up, of course, The Hunger Games. You know how when you have a crush on someone you think of any excuse to mention them? Well, THG has gotten that treatment from me. What, trees? You know where else there were trees? In The Hunger Games!

An author recently asked me if I was on "Team Peeta" (ie, rooting for romance with Peeta) or "Team Gale."

Gale is the protagonist's hunting buddy before she's called away to try to kill all of the other children summoned for the reality show. He's strong, thoughtful, smart, and hardcore. Best of all, he knows how to survive.

Peeta...well, he offers sensitivity. That's about it.

So, yes, I'm solidly Team Gale.

Would you ever hunt?
the Texans asked me. I thought about it. I'm a good, dutiful vegetarian--but I also live a Greenmarket-ed, Trader Joe's-populated, all-food-available-at-all-hours, spoiled NYC existence. Were I in District 12...

"I'm great with a crossbow," I said. "Years of Renfaire."

And for all you Chicken Littles out there...

...digital books are only 1.5 percent of book sales, according to Michael Palmer.

Will it increase? Over time, of course. Will Amazon do everything they can to make it seem like they're more? You betcha.

On age, and the offering of it

I'm having to take breaks from the queries--read 100--read some women's fiction--play with the office milk foamer--read another 50...

To be evil for a moment, I'm actually a little unbemused (un- definition 3) because so many of the queries are so good--and it's making for very tough decisions. There's simply no way I can read all of the manuscripts that go with all my inbox's queries. I'm already overloaded. But I can't just not request more--and risk losing something amazing.

One odd pattern I'm noticing today is that there are several (!) queries from young women who have me thinking they're professional writers--in that their writing is very good--until, just before signing their names, they say something like, "Just like my characters, I am an average American teenager."

Me: "Whaaaaaaaaa?"

So I'm having a debate with myself at the moment. Is it a good idea to broadcast one's age when it is not the submissions norm?

First of all, I belong to the camp (at least for my own work) that I don't think people are generally good novelists before they're 30. I'm speaking in general terms here. Of course there are exceptions, and very, very successful ones at that.

But the Ancient Greeks (and some today, when asked to think about it) thought of one as a "youth" until this age. How would someone who is not fully formed write a fully-formed novel?

I assume most of the queries I receive are from those between the ages of, say, 28 and 65.

Out of respect, I don't want to treat these young authors any differently--no matter how much I sometimes want to gush, "You are amazing! Go you! Achieve your dreams! Stay in school! Your query sounds like that of a real author!"

Then again--evil, steamrollered soul moment--I lost a bit of faith in the novels' goodness when I read the age of these writers. I requested, nonetheless--but a little bit of faith lost.

But, truth be told, I'm requesting so much that it's possible I'll forget--and forget to check--which submission belongs to the young authors.

In fact, I fully plan to not look it up. As a matter of fairness, impartiality.

As much as I think YA written by a young adult could take the world by storm...the odds of that are just so small.

So, again, split.

I'd say that it might be best to wait for an agent to read your partial/full and then disclose such information. They'll go in thinking someone of more experience wrote it--and then, if they like your first few pages, will be blown away and so much more attached to your work, knowing its source.

But again, might. I'm still not sure.

Pride and E-Readers and Zombies

If you aren't, like me, already obsessed with the idea (and it's perplexing, really--isn't this just one more corporate giant trying to change the reading process? Why does it seem so much less evil? Because it's late in the game and thus sort of an underdog?), read all about Barnes & Noble's e-reader, the Nook.

First of all, unlike the Kindle, the name doesn't bring to mind the setting of fire--thus implying books will be on fire when we declare them obsolete. (Grrr, Bezos. Grrr.)

Instead, I find "Nook" cute: it makes one think of windowseats instead of book burnings.

Second, you can lend books--even if just once, even if only for 14 days and you can't read it while it's out.

Third, and perhaps best of all--when you go into a B&N store, you can read ANYTHING B&N has--for free! No fighting with meanies (I mean the NYC employees, not the customers) in the most popular sections--find the most comfy spot and plunk yourself right down. No getting up when you want something new to read and having to fight for bookstore seating territory.

It also has a full-color touch screen on bottom, and a good reading surface (similar to Kindle's e-ink) on top.

I mean, so far, the only choice I don't like is what they've displayed as promotional material:


The group most likely to purchase one of these, methinks, would very much prefer,
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.
That, and I think it a bit arrogant to choose The Tipping Point as the free e-book you get as a promotion. As if you'll see kids using the Nook and therefore it'll take over and catch on like all of the other trends Gladwell mentions.

I guess we've yet to see if it's Orwellian like the Kindle.

And what they'll offer in terms of annotation. I'd like this better if there were a special little pen for writing on the screen.

That said, so far, I'm very pleased.

Reading Update II

This book is not just miss-your-stop good--it's Cancel plans with your friends to stay home and read it good. (Which I didn't do, but just realized that I would.)

This from a reader whose soul should, by now, be steamrollered.

What's next? Miss your kid's ballet recital good? Cancel on your mother's birthday dinner good? ("Good" suggestions welcome.)


Well, we'll see...

Reading Update

So, just as my train went over The Manhattan Bridge, I finished the last page of section one of The Hunger Games--I've been reading slowly to savor every image--the televised interview with all of the tributes and Peeta's declaration. I had to bite my lip to keep from squealing on the train.

Eeeeeeeeeee!

It's so good.

For anyone looking for good YA...

I picked this up today and am loving it.

It's seriously miss-your-[subway-]stop good.

And yes--irony of ironies, I know--there is a Google preview. Look for it just below the book cover.
Just read the article my roommate was reading. It says in the first paragraph that a court settlement could "grant a practical monopoly on recorded human knowledge to global Internet search giant Google."

_____ you! I exclaimed.

But, being the polite agent that I am, I don't use such words.

Really, though. Please. Chill out, print media. What's next? "Tommy Smith of Des Moines, IA, dropped a book in a puddle today. It's the end of publishing as we know it!"?

On Squirrels, Google, Elmo, and The End of Publishing As We Know It

I came home to find my roommate terrified--not because of swine flu, not because of the current healthcare debates (I'm truly frustrated--may just take a news vacation), and not even because of the squirrel that's been scratching at our kitchen window. (Really, it's terrifying: once, at our last place, we left the window open and I came home to find a squirrel on top of our refrigerator, halfway into a box of cereal. I went into survival mode and started lobbing tostada shells at it. It smartly jumped out the window. Nevermore! We now have super screens. I tell you--the hazards of living on tree-lined streets! )

My roommate was worried, having read, and believed (it was by Amy Goodman, after all), an article that stated that Google's tampering with copyright could be the end of publishing as we know it.

Frankly, I think the print news media is taking advantage of an easily manipulated prejudice of their audience: if you're reading their publication, you like reading and, therefore, probably like books.

This is like placing an article in Fine Cooking that says foie gras--or, far more apocalyptic in my opinion, soft-ripened cheeses--will never be available ever again. Or like writing in Lacrosse Magazine that the government is considering banning lacrosse sticks (dangerous items as they are).

In any case--through fear, it gets attention--and thus readership.

But I'm really not pleased. (Imagine that several steps ruder: that's what I'm really thinking.)

I can't help but liken it to the news treatment of, oh, I don't know--Homeland Security threat levels a few years ago. (I loved those interviews with small-town women--remember, I'm from a small town, so I can make fun--who'd say, "Well, I'm really worried that they might try to knock down our silo...")

Let me say this: no one I know in the industry is worried that Google's breaking of copyright laws will singlehandedly end publishing as we know it. It's stupidity, and perhaps megalomania, on the part of a small fraction of an otherwise great company. Rather, we're annoyed that they're sending us stacks of envelopes that we (or our interns) have to stamp and re-address to send to our authors, so that they can receive information on their settlement checks. I mean, you're GOOGLE! Can't you send emails??

I think it's about time someone made good fun of the "this is the end of publishing as we know it" sentiment that seems to echo with annoying frequency throughout the news.

Remember Threat Level Elmo? He'd change colors (and Sesame characters) depending on how endangered we supposedly were.

Someone, please invent an amusing "It's the end of publishing!" threat level system.

In similar news, check out this Elmo Gone Evil, below.

And no, I didn't think the article in question was worth a link in this post. You wanna read it that badly? Google it!



SEAKing H1N1

I seem to have the worst travel luck: healthy as your proverbial, talking horse most of the year, then somehow of weakened immunity just before conferences.

At the last conference, I literally had to step down off the Agent Panel platform and leave the room to gulp water as an anti-cough measure. And I used so much Children's (it tastes better) Robitussin, it stained the inside of my purse pink. Awesome.

Now I'm prepping to go to SEAK, a conference for medical personnel who wish to write medical fiction.

Can you imagine?

Here's me: "And here's a pie chart of why I reject queries--*cough* *cough*"

Them: "H1N1!"

I picture a stampede of doctors, white coats, stethoscopes and vaccines produced the way stage techies whip out Leathermans and teenagers, texting phones. I'd probably be sent off the island (er, conference center) or, at the very least, given an uber-attractive Bird Flu-era mask. (Can I put lipstick on that?)

So, today (I tend to accumulate beverages; at my last job, I was known to end up with five cups at my desk), beverage count: water, green tea, coffee (as you can see from below, I have to be superwoman today), and Emergen-C, Super Orange.

Gulp.

Numbers upon returning from calm, pretty Maine:

E-Queries: 138, plus about 100 I dealt with while on vacay

E-Manuscripts: 127

Paper queries: 26

Stack of paper manuscripts left on my desk by my interns: around 14.5 inches tall

Manuscripts by authors who have other offers and need an answer today if not sooner: 3

Writers I put on my calendar to get back to and haven't yet: 12

Wish me luck!

What We Talk About When We Talk About Publishing Parties

I was terrified at first. The prospect of walking alone into a room of strangers--let alone publishing strangers, whose opinion of you can determine a part of your future as an agent--is, shall we say, not the sort of thing to inspire calm, contented dreams of sugarplums. (Maybe dreams of plum wine, but sugarplums--no.)

I was very young at the first party--invited by a friend of a girl I'd met once--and didn't know when she'd arrive. As I made my way up the rickety elevator of a three-story, tall and skinny, probably 200-year-old pub, I started to panic. I wasn't on the list! Would they let me in? Would they take one look at my short twenties self and dismiss me in favor of "real" agents? Would they ask questions like, "So, what have you sold for a million dollars lately"? Would I make horrible grammatical errors in my speech--confuse the "was" and "were" subjunctive, say--and then the room would grind to a horrified silence, and drink and I would be escorted out (perhaps picked up by the seat of my business casual non-fancy pants, and thrown through the windows--before or after opening them)?

I've always been bad at walking in heels, particularly tall ones, particularly tall ones when I'm scared. I wobbled to the obligatory sign-in desk--every party has one, where sticky name tags are distributed. (I'm still not sure how one applies these things to shiny fabrics gracefully, or removes them without tearing off half the shirt, in fuzz, in the process.)

The women at the desk were my age--good! It was dark; I couldn't see much, but I was pretty sure they weren't wearing designer clothing. They added me to the mailing list, smiled, welcomed, handed me a blank name tag, marker, and a drink coupon.

And then I had my first experience of what would be my calming, saving grace throughout my years of publishing parties: an editor came up, introduced herself, and the proverbial overhead compact florescent went on: We are here to get along, feel each other out, get a sense of what the other would like to read. There's a high enough likelihood of our working together in the future that they have to be nice. And if their bosses get wind of their having alienated an agent, it would not be good.

Within minutes, we discovered our commonalities: we both live in Brooklyn, love the local Superhero Supply Shop, and think the best solution to NYC dating would be a modern Lysistrata.

"Let me introduce you to some people," she said. She took me to a group of young women--all, like me, short brunettes with glasses, geeky humor, and a fondness for YA. Success! I felt, immediately, like I had new friends.

Then: "You said you have adult nonfiction? Here, let me introduce you..."

And so I was plunked in line to speak with the one young, adult nonfiction editor in attendance. After a few moments we realized that we have a friend (by then in Colorado) in common, live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood (and have strong feelings about the R train), and have a similarly dark sense of humor.

It just so happened that we had a humor book that was about to go out. I told him the title--it's one of those brilliant titles you bring into an ed board meeting and could quite possibly get cheers--okay, grins, at least--and he said, "I'd love to read it. Send it on over."

A few weeks later, he bought it.

And thus the purpose of publishing parties. Houses will (less so now, but before this economic slump, quite often) throw parties and tell their editors to invite the agents they know. This way, should the stars align and the agents have something they're about to send out that's a good fit for someone in the building, that editor--having forged a personal connection--has a better chance of getting the book, if they want it. Because it's not just about money. It's about our finding the editor who really gets your work.

Kind of like how you want an agent who gets your work, and can take your vision and run with it.

Anyway, it's not always so dreamy, though my stress with regard to these parties has decreased significantly.

And after each one, my boss always asks for two reports: a general "who you met" report, and a cheese report.

Because, really, who can throw a good party without cheese? (Admittedly, this started when my boss asked me about a book party, and the first thing I said was, The cheese was FANTASTIC!)

Last week, I was worried about a party at a house I hadn't visited before--a smaller house that focuses on visual (coffee table, etc.) books. Sure that this meant they had gorgeous, designer-clad editors and that, therefore, I had to look, well, awesome, I stressed for an hour that morning about what to wear. I promptly spilled hair product on the dry-clean-only shirt I'd finally settled on. (At that point, I texted my boss, Fashion emergency! Be there soon!)

We (my boss, intern/assistant and I) arrive, and everyone, though certainly pleasant-looking, is also friendly-looking, warm, and kind.

There's also an excellent selection of soft ripened cheeses.

Soon I fall into chatting with an editor who tells me that she just did a book on beer, and that her boyfriend brews his own in their apartment--and even grows hops for this purpose. Wow!

It's not always like this. I went to a party once, where every editor in the room had good reason to be unhappy. It was just after the recession really hit, but it was clear the food had been ordered before--tons of shrimp, and similarly expensive edibles. (And, yes, cheese.)

There were also--not sure who came up with this; it's not like offices made of that gray, push-pin-able cube material will look romantic in such light--probably about thirty candles with large, exposed flames. All of the women were tall, model-esque, and chilly. They wore diamonds, designer clothing, and--I'm pretty sure--had all attended Ivys and Seven Sisters--and could out-Math and out-SAT anyone at the other parties I'd attended. (The truly book-minded, I've discovered, are often lacking in the fill-in-the-bubble skills. I like to think our worldview is too nuanced, too multifaceted, for multiple choice.)

In other words, these were the sort of people who make me fall into conversations like:

Them: Where are you from?
Me: (Knowing they're from Connecticut, Cape Cod, Boston, Newton, or somewhere expensive in New England)
Me: (Knowing the more accurate answer of, "From a small town in California with sheep across from my high school" is not especially glamorous)
Me: (Not lying, but): I'm from Sonoma County--wine country.

I got pulled into a circle of people discussing authors. "Uggh, if I have to hear from one more author today...!" one threatened. "KNEW I should have gone to law school."

Yes, I thought. Please go to law school and open up your job for one of the thousands of people who'd love it.

(I should note that this is rare. The VAST majority of people in publishing love their jobs.)

And then the absurdities started.

I guess it makes sense when you have a lot of literary (even if unhappily so) people crammed into a small space with a lot of fire.

A lit candle fell on an editor's head and dripped wax down his shirt. A girl's napkin caught fire. A girl somehow "accidentally" got wine in another girl's eyes. A huge wine glass shattered. A girl's hair caught fire. And an editor made the same exact speech three times--down to the "um"s and "ah"s--all while pretending she was making it up on the spot.

Needless to say, I did not sell any books that night.

I've more or less come to the conclusion that those I get along with--those with whom I have an instant rapport--are those most likely to get the books I get, appreciate them, and want them.

In any case. I'm writing this from a coffeeshop in downtown Bar Harbor, one that looks remarkably like M. Rohr's on the Upper East Side--with the addition of old-wood rocking chairs and granny square blankets. And I'm freezing.

Until next time!

Having broken all of her rules at once, our heroine...

Today was the deadline for story ideas for our foodie digest. Everyone just CC’d everyone, and so I sent off my own little version this afternoon.

You know how it’s so easy to describe other peoples’ work, but so difficult to describe your own--never mind the temptation to include disclaimers? (My mother’s writing group actually got to the point where they made a big wooden sign that says “Disclaimer,” so as to save time and “my cat ate my mouse” stories.)

So I sent descriptions of my two stories to everyone else in the foodie digest thingy today—one a fifteen-pager I really rather like—it’s complicated, though; one a three-pager I wrote in about half an hour. It’s gimmicky; it’s silly, it’s the sort of thing one writes to amuse oneself, but not others.

One guy writes back to say he likes the three-pager better (of course) because the first one “sounds like it doesn’t have any conflict.”

And what do I do? I break all my rules—at once.

@[my friend]: Of course there’s conflict! I write back—immediately, on my smart phone. (Yes, I caved. I am a wired sheep.) This happens, and then this happens, and then…oh no! [Conflict!!!] Whatever will she do?!?

Haven’t heard back. Sigh.

Writing tip of the day--er, week--er...

So there's a little three-season porch here, with windows, couches, green carpet, electric lamps--and more sunlight than I know what to do with. (Were it still summer, I could tan out there.)

It's become my impromptu office as the deadline for my first piece for the foodie fiction zine approaches.

And I've discovered the best method yet of motivating myself to write the darn thing: No email until it's done.

Blogging is a gray area of cheating.

But I'm ten pages into the story (it has to be shorter, but I always write long and cut) and it seems not entirely terrible.

When I return, I'll get to work on that new pie (actually line) chart, write a bit about what in the world agents do when they send out your work, and chat about the social elements of the business--a substantial part of what we do.

In the meantime, leaves:

Yes. It's ridiculously pretty here.
I was reading the website for a "new style of literary agency" a few months ago--and one of the FAQs was, "Where's your office?"

"Sometimes we feel like we do most of our work in airline terminals," the site administrator wrote.

"Huh!" I thought. "Interesting!" (As if my job couldn't get any better--the idea of doing it from anywhere!)

Since then, we've made much of our submissions process electronic--and, therefore, portable.

I'm sitting at JFK, waiting for a flight to Maine (and praying for a flight experience somewhat better than Janet Reid's): the family's meeting me there for a week of photography, food, and (yes) leaf-peeping. It would appear that we've timed everything just right: the red leaves have just begun.

And what am I doing? Not reading my sizable pile of books (Banana Rose, Fat Kid Rules the World, The Romantics, The Hunger Games, My Life in France): reading manuscripts, answering author emails, and feeling generally very productive.

Add in a latte (oh wait! I can have one delivered--thanks, JetBlue!) and I might as well be in the office.

Twitter, sabertooths, and Martha

Seriously, woman... how are you not twittering these things????

http://twitter.com

come on sign up...

*

I am a proud Twitter Luddite.

Anything that makes Martha Stewart (not my favorite human being in the world, but she's usually known for, I don't know--elegance? Refinement?) sound, frankly, cavemanish...is not going to please me.

I'm not saying that I think everyone should forsake their dear, sweet Twitter. (I love how everyone always rushes to its defense.) Some of you have written in to say that you wouldn't have found this blog without it--so, of course, I'm duly appreciative. I'm just saying that it's not something I'm likely to do anytime soon.

Regina Spektor

If you like Regina Spektor, she was just on the Barnes and Nobles Upstairs at the Square 8/18/09 podcast episode with Kurt Anderson. It was cool.

I was there! I got to Union Square's B&N (not my favorite place in the world: I've been yelled at there for--get this--reading in their bookstore) at around 5; there were already hundreds of fans. By the time the show started, my nose was--count them--six inches from the guy in front of me's back. Ew. Music fan sardines.

I literally got a mosquito bite in the store. That's how gross it was in there. Thank you, summer-in-NYC.

But it was worth it. If you listen to the podcast, you'll probably hear someone yell for more Regina in the middle of Kurt Anderson talking. The overenthused fan was about four people in front of me. Good times, good times.

You can listen to most of Regina's new album for free here.

Tea

I busted out the tea that arrived yesterday. (And we reached a perfect compromise: it's to be tea for the office and our writer guests.)

Vanilla Earl Gray with flower petals: O. M. G.

I should note...

...that most everything about that day (it was last Thursday, actually) was typical except for the number of manuscripts read. There were many (more than usual) works that I wanted to read--and keep reading--and keep reading...mostly because they were novels and I wanted to find out what would happen. I can read fiction more quickly than nonfiction--one can enjoy the story as would a bookstore reader, rather than evaluate each proposal sentence.

I also didn't have a lot in the way of the putting out of fires that day, so there was more time for tea and manuscripts.

I'd say a day of reading is usually between 70 or 100 pages (if I'm busy) and 350.

But I also have the awesomest boss ever, and a situation that lets me read more than the average agent.
I won't point out that with 138 manuscripts in your inbox, 9 in hardcopy and average stopping place of page 28.5, you have 4189.5 pages to read before you can clean out your requests. Yikes! You are much braver to face those numbers than I could ever be.

Happily, 1) I read very, very quickly, and 2) much of the reading is quite pleasant. After all, I chose it.

Also, at 28.5 pages average (higher than usual) and 12 manuscripts a day, that's still just 342 pages--a very doable amount.

I figure that if I read and request approximately the same number of manuscripts each day, at least I won't fall behind--I'll have the same amount hanging over my head daily.

And I don't aspire to completely clearing out my inbox. As long as I get back to everyone within our two-month (less than many agents'!) time frame, I think everything's all right.

But now that you put it this way (thanks!) :) ...yes, I suppose, yikes.

Whoa. Awkward.

So I found an unopened box at the office today: around ten inches by fourteen by six, ten pounds or so--and dated about two weeks ago. Huh.

I worry, first, that it's a manuscript--a 600-page, unsolicited manuscript.

Then I hope that it's a present--who doesn't love real mail?

It's neither: it's a present from an author, an author I've emailed once--which isn't really a present. The note says that she hopes I will enjoy it while reading her work. Inside the box--a shiny, copper box--is some of the most gorgeous organic tea. A tea catalog. A selection of tea storage devices. And a "perfect tea maker."

The beauty of it, the obvious expense of it--and the fact that I haven't seen the box until today and haven't said thank you yet--delivers a series of uncomfortable emotions: no matter what I write now, it'll be a rudely belated, ungrateful-seeming thank you. I can't really say, Hi, thank you, this is beautiful (all the while thinking she broke our submissions guidelines). I can't say, Wow, excellent, I'll keep this in mind while reading your work because that implies bribery.

I can't toss it because it's beautiful--and that's wasteful. But I can't really drink it, either, without feeling guilty. Regifting? Maybe. Also guilt-inspiring. Maybe I'll give it to the interns.

And, worse--I realized with a start after opening the box--since it was sitting unopened for so long, what if I'd already rejected her work, never mentioning the tea? (I hadn't. Thank goodness.)

If authors are trainable creatures, thanking her excitedly, as I would if a friend or relative or anyone else had sent the box--well, this is positive feedback for poor behavior.

Finally, seeing that my boss had just brought a milk foamer for the office, I grumbled, "Screw her tea. I'm having coffee."

Typical Day

Caffeine: 1 gorgeous homemade latte + cinnamon

Commute
: 37 minutes

Books: Nick Hornby's How to be Good and Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

Rating: Hornby: sentences: 8/10, drawing of relationship: 9/10, ability to make me want to read more about these incredibly unhappy, incredibly well-drawn characters: 5/10. Napoli: 11 out of 10, just because I've loved this work since I first read it as a teenager. Proof that publishing does not steamroller everyone's soul.

Walk from subway to work: Regina Spektor, "Fidelity" and "Blue Lips"

While thinking of: This Is Your Brain on Music

Caffeine: 1 tea, English Breakfast

Queries: 63
Queries requested: 14
Manuscripts in inbox: 138
Hard copy manuscripts in office: 9
Manuscripts my calendar says I must get to today: 7

Call from rude author: 1
Emails from rude author (another): 2. Wants to know 1) "When [he] can expect to hear [I] love it," 2) if we can have a phone meeting "before this goes any further," and 3) WHY he must send sample chapters (like everyone else) and what, specifically, I think is lacking in his proposal that I'd want to see sample chapters (again: like everyone else).

Manuscripts reviewed: 12.
Average pages (for this day) before deciding they're not right: 28.5 (Note: there were several good manuscripts, which means that the number of them reviewed is lower than usual.)

Emails sent with bullet-pointed lists of suggestions for author: 2

Caffeine: 1 tea, green-ginger; handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans.

Literary events added to calendar: 2. Slice Magazine's Literary Family Feud (publishing houses sending reps to compete against other houses in a trivia show with "all the craft beer one can politely drink"), Reboot's "People of the Book: Are We Born to Wander?" event with A.J. Jacobs

Favors for friends in the business: 2 (pitch edited, editor suggested)

Errands: 2.5--library books, Trader Joe's/TJ's wine store

Check-out lines that wrap around the perimeter of the store: 1

Fistfights over last package of organic, free-range spinach: 0, though they seemed imminent

Bags' weight: Approx. 30 pounds. Who needs the gym?

Collisions with other commuters: 3

Angry looks: 1

Evil sentence composed but not uttered: 1

Podcast: 1. KQED: The Writer's Block. Suzanne Finnamore reading from her darkly comic memoir, Split.

Book I plan to buy because of podcast: 1

Magazines perused: New York Magazine, Time Out New York

Magazines that, I realize, could be read on Kindle instead of crumpled in my bag next to melting chocolate-covered espresso beans: 2

Work emails replied to from home: 4

Manuscripts from the day's reading that stayed with me through the day: 2

Well-earned television: 1 episode of Glee. I heart you, Hulu.

Soul, steamrollered

"Publishing steamrollers your soul," warned the friend who got me into the industry. "You can't help it. It just happens."

She no longer works in publishing--she's taken up the life of a writer. But this not-quite-warning--rather, this prediction and its supposed inevitability--stayed with me. How could written works--which, I feel, make me more human--become, when taken in unedited excess, something that make me less so?

I decided to do an experiment--to find, and re-read, the YA I remember loving--books I've kept through several moves but haven't opened in ten years. The words are the same. Since my first reading of them, how have I, as a reader, changed?

I wanted to know: if they were submissions--would I reject them? Would I see their exuberant paragraphs, the sentences that once led me to imagine towers and flying ships and great plagues and bayous and coal miners and underground labyrinths and dusty planets and robots and open air markets and castles--and merely say, "I don't like that comma there"? Would I sniff? Would I think them cheesy, melodramatic, and everything stereotypically teenage?

Books will be added as I find them.

Notes on a few:

Zel, by Donna Jo Napoli: I loved this book, and read it at least five times before I was 20. It's a retelling of Rapunzel, but it's really about mother-daughter relationships, magic, and obsession. The descriptions of the world are wonderful--there's an incredibly powerful metaphor throughout (won't spoil it for you), and I so enjoyed the magic: Zel's mother, in this version, has the power to grow and shrink plants/trees at will. Re-read and am impressed with the pacing, the juxtaposition of three viewpoints (Mother, Zel, and the prince), and masterful telling. Grade: A+. Yes, I would take this on.

Pearl in the Mist
, by V.C. Andrews: I had this on my shelf and a recent house guest commented on how much she loved this book. She wanted to borrow my copy (complete with its pressed-flower bookmark, from when I first read it), but I requested so many promises of its safekeeping that she decided against it. The plot seems incredibly melodramatic to me now--twins separated in early childhood, one raised in high society, one raised near the bayou. They're reunited at a boarding school where the first twin has decided to get in as much trouble as she possibly can, while the second is (though well-intentioned and good) blamed for everything her sister does. Grade: B+. I wouldn't take it on, but I'd send the author an email telling her what I like and don't like about the story.

Matilda, by Roald Dahl: Genius. Pure genius. The voice is spot-on and just as much fun as the first time I read it. Yes, would absolutely take on. And yes--it's far better than the movie.

Stonewords: A Ghost Story, by Pam Conrad: Unfortunately, I don't have my own copy: this was read to us in school, and we'd sit on the classroom's '70s orange carpeting and listen. Yes, storytime. Yes, cheesy. This book, however, is gorgeously written. You can read the first few pages on Amazon. The writing is sophisticated, and it's the sort of story makes one grin with the pure joy of watching the characters.

Lesson for today: it's the YA works that are multilayered, emotionally sophisticated (often using symbols to express truths teenagers can't yet articulate but intuitively understand), and original in plot and concept that hold the interest even of the cynical (that is, everyone in publishing). All of these are, in their way, as sophisticated as novels for adults--but with an extra helping of imagination.